Millions of lives are being turned upside down by life-threatening extreme weather. Communities are no stranger to the disastrous impacts of climate change, but this yearâ€™s El NiÃ±o is wreaking havoc. Although the warming of the Pacific Ocean is a natural phenomenon, climate change is increasing in the intensity and destructiveness it unleashes in the form of floods, droughts and typhoons. Unicef has warned that an estimated 11 million children are at risk from hunger, disease and lack of water (pdf) in eastern and southern Africa alone, and many more face record-smashing droughts and floods across swathes of Latin America, Asia and the Pacific.
Children, particularly the most destitute, are disproportionately vulnerable to climate change. Climate-related disasters and changing weather patterns increase the risk of malnutrition, vector-borne diseases such as malaria, and water and food-borne diarrhoea â€“ all major killers of children who, according to the World Health Organisation, suffer a much greater burden of these climate-related diseases than adults.
Loss of family livelihoods and migration following these events can also leave children exposed to the dangers of child-trafficking and labour, or other forms of exploitation, violence and abuse. And because of the unique period of development that childhood represents, these types of physical and psychological trauma have more severe and lasting effects for children than adults.
For all the rhetoric from world leaders on protecting the planet for our children and future generations, consideration of children has been conspicuously absent from international climate negotiations. They are mentioned just once in the current draft text of the Paris climate agreement.
The UN climate talks have been slow to recognise the relationship between climate change and human rights, representing a strange disconnect between this process and other commitments the international community has signed up to.
The SDGs â€“ or global goals â€“ recognise that tackling climate change will be essential for advancing poverty alleviation and human development, and firmly ground these goals in the objective of realising the human rights of all.
It will be impossible to improve the lives of the poorest and most marginalised children and communities â€“ and to prevent millions more from falling into poverty â€“ if their rights are undermined by catastrophic climate change. The Human Rights Council has recognised this in several resolutions, along with UN human rights experts who have consistently urged governments to place human rights at the core of the climate change agreement. An increasing number of countries are calling for this, too. The Philippines â€“ still reeling from the effects of Typhoon Haiyan â€“ is among the most vocal champions.
Joining the dots between countriesâ€™ climate policies and actions, and their existing human rights obligations and commitments, can inform and strengthen efforts to tackle climate change.
Recognising this can, firstly, drive more urgent and ambitious action to reduce emissions. The Climate Vulnerable Forum, an increasingly influential group representing 43 of the worldâ€™s most climate-vulnerable countries, has led calls for the global agreement to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, rather than the 2 degrees goal previously signed up to by governments. This is on the understanding that the latter poses a serious threat to the fundamental human rights of the one billion people they represent.
Second, it can ensure that the very solutions and actions designed to tackle climate change do not themselves undermine human rights. There must be safeguards in place to prevent tragedies â€“ such as the forced removal of communities to make way for green projects â€“ from taking place. In Guatemala, protests over the planned construction of a hydro dam have been linked to the deaths of six indigenous people, including two children.
Finally, it can support full and meaningful participation in global and national policy discussions, involving and empowering those whose voices are seldom heard, yet whose lives are indelibly shaped by the impacts of climate change and the policies designed to help them.
As former Irish President Mary Robinson has pointed out, â€œWhat is the new climate change agreement for, if not peopleâ€™s rights?â€ Unicef UK will continue to advocate for the core legal agreement to recognise children and to maintain language that countries shall â€“ in all climate-change-related actions â€“ respect, protect, promote and fulfil human rights for all. The climate talks in Paris must deliver an enduring regime, setting out long- and short-term obligations and mechanisms to bring countries back to the table until people and planet are safe. This is the start of something new: letâ€™s make sure we get it right, protect our children, and leave no one behind.
Joni Pegram leads on climate change policy and advocacy at Unicef UK. Follow @joni_yp on Twitter.